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Ron Hansen came to Hillsdale as a part of the English Department’s Vis­iting Writer’s Program. | Wikipedia

As he writes a novel, Ron Hansen posts his ideal “cast” of char­acters on his wall so he can remember what they look like.

His ideal Robert Ford wasn’t cast for the film version of his his­torical fiction novel “The Assas­si­nation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” but he said Casey Affleck was a more sym­pa­thetic-looking Bob, anyway. So it worked out alright in the end — for everyone except that no-good gangster Jesse James.

“I think I am drawn to outlaws — to people living on the edges,” Hansen said. “Writers often see them­selves beyond the bound­aries in a sense, probably because we’ve chosen to do some­thing beyond the edge of what most people would choose to do.”

In his two-day res­i­dence as Hillsdale’s Spring 2017 Vis­iting Writer, Hansen read stories about Nebraska bliz­zards and gang­sters in the old West, revealed the under­pin­nings of Shake­speare and Scripture in his work, talked about con­ducting research on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins with the biog­rapher Paul Mariani, and rem­i­nisced about writing screen­plays for Brad Pitt and company.

It’s the type of variety that makes one’s head spin, but the Nebraska-born author, short story writer, screen­writer, and pro­fessor at Santa Clara Uni­versity in Cal­i­fornia ropes these adven­turous stories all together with a vibrant writing style enlivened by his tireless curiosity about the lives of those around him.

Hansen’s most recent novel is perhaps more clearly con­nected to the rest of his corpus than his other works: “The Kid” com­pletes what he called “sort of a trilogy of Westerns” about these often mis­un­der­stood or over-mythol­o­gized char­acters. The other two are “Des­per­adoes,” “The Assas­si­nation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Hansen read from the scene when Billy the Kid receives his death sen­tence, fol­lowing a common theme in his Westerns: in the Old West, outlaws’ legends often dwarfed them even in their lifetime. The birth and death of such legends was often a mystery to both offending criminal and offended (and some­times adoring) audience.

“Billy the Kid was sen­tenced to hang by the neck until he was dead, dead, dead,” Hansen read. “Billy’s response to that? ‘And you can go to hell, hell, hell.’”

“I really like that about him,” Hansen said.

It’s this sort of spunk and joie de vivre that Hansen looks to recreate in all his fiction; in tying together his wide-ranging work, he describes the short story as a really great party — but one that only lasts three or four hours.

“A novel, on the other hand, is like a whole summer vacation; it gives me time to make myself at home,” Hansen said.

And writing screen­plays, like the one for the film version of “The Assas­si­nation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” give him the chance not only to use a writing style that he describes as his “cin­e­matic imag­i­nation,” but also to work with actors like Affleck and Pitt in recre­ating the legend of Jesse James.

Hansen was sur­rounded by James’s old West — or echoes of it, which res­onate just as well for a his­torical fiction writer — in his childhood home in Omaha, Nebraska.

“Nebraska is the kind of place where you can still feel what it was like to live a hundred years ago,” Hansen said. “It creates this beau­tiful, open land­scape for the imag­i­nation.”

Hansen spent 24 years living in the Midwest: in Omaha, where he studied at Creighton Uni­versity, and Iowa, where he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop with John Irving and John Cheever.

Hansen said he learned his most valuable lessons as a writer while living in Irving’s basement as his “live-in babysitter.” Irving chose not to live the wild life of a Ernest Hem­ingway or an Oscar Wilde. Instead, his life is normal and routine, cen­tered around writing “without living a creepy life.”

Though he may not have shootouts and ship­wrecks in his per­sonal history, Hansen may be too modest about his normal life as a writer: he has recited Shake­speare while jumping out of planes while in training with the Army, and he has shame­lessly tres­passed on a monastery where Hopkins, the poet and Jesuit priest, used to live.

Still, this was all in service to his work, and junior Chandler Ryd found that the nor­malcy of Hansen’s life allowed him to focus on the drama of his col­orful fiction.

“He just seems so normal,” Ryd said. “That’s what left the biggest impact on me: there’s always this sense that I have to live an exotic, painful, somehow inter­esting life to be a writer.”

Pro­fessor of English John Somerville said the interplay between Hansen’s life and work struck him, as well.

“That’s one of the impressive things about Ron Hansen. He’s so decent, so gra­cious and gen­erous,” Somerville said. “Then you recall how immensely tal­ented he is, and the many fine stories and novels he’s written. And you wonder, why is he even lis­tening to me?”

But the simple way in which Hansen approaches his fiction also played into the violent and dif­ficult themes in some of his work.

“Hansen said his goal is to think about the world as if he were still a boy, when the world seemed so much bigger than him,” Ryd said. “That’s inter­esting given the violent themes in his work.”

“Wickedness,” Ryd’s favorite of Hansen’s stories, about the dev­as­tating Nebraska blizzard of 1888, presents a vision of the “bigness” and power of nature pressing down on char­acters in a whirlwind of vignettes.

And the ques­tions only get bigger the deeper one digs into Hansen’s work: his novel “Mariette in Ecstasy” centers around a nun who appar­ently receives stigmata. “Exiles” recreates Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” focusing on five nuns who per­ished in the ship­wreck. Even a Western like his Jesse James novel is not devoid of dif­fi­culty: Hansen said the structure drew from the stories of Judas in the Gospels and Julius Caesar’s betrayal as dra­ma­tized in Shake­speare.

“When I’m writing a story, I like to put char­acters ‘in extremis,’’’ Hansen said. “I ask the question, ‘What do people do when stretched to the utmost?’”

Hansen’s next novel will take the central char­acter in “Mariette in Ecstasy” even a step further; he plans to follow the former nun’s life as a bat­tle­field nurse in World War I.

The novel is in its early stages, so there may not even be a picture of Mariette on Hansen’s wall yet. But as he researches and writes the sequel, his readers can expect Hansen to follow the command that Mariette receives in response to her prayers about her future in “Mariette in Ecstasy”:

“Sur­prise me.”